When I traveled to Burma in 2000, I met with Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and some of the leadership of the National League for Democracy (NLD). The message that Aung San Suu Kyi wanted me to carry back to the world outside: never forget the suffering of the Burmese people.
In 1990, Suu Kyi and the NLD swept the polls, capturing a majority of parliamentary seats. But the military junta refused to recognize the results and since then, Suu Kyi and NLD leadership have been jailed for most of the past 19 years. Suu Kyi is currently on trial for violating the terms of her house arrest after allowing an American man stay at her home after swimming there uninvited in May. She faces five years in prison if convicted.
Suu Kyi’s plea to never forget the suffering of the Burmese people is grounded in history and resonates today.
Since achieving independence from the British in 1948, the people of Burma have suffered under the brutal rule of a military dictatorship (in 1990 the name was changed to “Myanmar” by the junta that rules Burma).
For nearly five decades, the military junta of Burma has, with impunity, perpetrated large-scale violations of the rights of its people, particularly the ethnic groups such as the Chin. One thing about the junta, they are equal opportunity persecutors. Women, children and even the elderly are subjected to forced labor, mass displacement, and high taxation of agricultural goods, often leading to chronic hunger and poverty. The International Labor Organization, ILO, estimates that 800,000 Burmese are forced into labor each year. In addition, with the country run as a police state, there is absolutely no tolerance of political expression, so neighbors inform on each other.
The plight of the Chin, that our grantee the Women’s Foundation of Chinland works to address, is illustrative of the violations suffered by nearly every ethnic group in Burma. Nearly a million Chin have fled the racial discrimination and religious persecution committed by the Burmese military regime. In refugee populations, domestic violence and vulnerability to all forms of abuse become magnified. This makes the work of the Women’s Foundation of Chinland and the Women’s League of Burma that much more critical, ensuring that women’s rights are not only protected, but that women develop the leadership skills to become effective advocates for change.